In 1949, India was called upon to decide whether it would continue as a member of the Commonwealth.
A constitution rendering India as a sovereign country was about to be considered by the Constituent Assembly, which would advance the nation from the dominion status it acquired on 15 August 1947. In effect, the question of having the British monarch as head of state after India became independent was repugnant to a republic.
On 8 March 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru gave an indication on the matter to the assembly when he said: ‘India…in the course of a few months will become an independent republic. In no way in our external, internal, political or economic policy do we propose to accept anything which involves the slightest degree of dependence on any other authority. Subject to that we are prepared to associate ourselves with other countries…we have been associated with the Commonwealth…in a way which was entirely unsatisfactory and we all fought to get out of it…now it is only in terms of independent nations co-operating together that we can consider the problem of our association with the Commonwealth.”
In the circumstances, Nehru conjured a formula that gave birth to the modern Commonwealth and paved the way for all former colonies of Britain to join the organisation with dignity and self-respect.
A Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in April 1949 – associated with the ‘London Declaration’ – adopted Nehru’s proposal, which stated: ‘The Government of India have…declared and affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.’ It was a compromise. Britain did not like it, but it had to lump it.
The formula, which was restricted to the reigning British monarch being accepted in the position for his lifetime, came to be tested in 1952 with the king’s passing. However, Nehru sent a telegram to Queen Elizabeth II congratulating her on succeeding her father as monarch of Great Britain & Northern Ireland as well as head of the Commonwealth.
No one contested this among the member nations, such was the Indian Prime Minister’s authority and stature at the time. The accession did not have to undergo any procedure. Nehru’s message was, in other words, instrumental in anointing the current head of the Commonwealth.